Ship Island People
Ship Island, Mississippi has served as a crossroads through 300 years of American history. Having the only deep-water harbor between Mobile Bay and the Mississippi River, the island served as a vital anchorage for ships bearing explorers, colonists, sailors, soldiers, defenders and invaders. Below are listed a few of the thousands of people who have either anchored in this small island’s safe harbor or may even have stepped onto its shore for a period of time.
Did Native Americans frequent Mississippi’s offshore barrier islands? The answer is less than definitive. Tribes certainly lived along the Gulf of Mexico’s northern coastline, taking advantage of the many hunting and fishing opportunities among the bayous and rivers. Archeologists have found numerous signs of human presence including burial sites and midden piles, but only on the mainland and on islands very close to shore.
Transportation was not a hindrance to visit the farther offshore barrier islands. French explorers met Native Americans using small boats in Biloxi Bay, but the evidence of Native-Americans visiting islands six to ten miles offshore remains slim. There are no known village sites or midden piles, but stone projectile points, arrowheads or spear points, occasionally discovered in the sand suggests that someone centuries ago may have had a reason to visit Ship Island.
Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville
"We came in, under shelter of an island or the point of an island, where we are protected from winds from the south-southwest, south- southeast, and east by the island and from the northeast and the north and the northwest by the mainland, three and a half leagues from us, and from the west and southwest by an island two leagues away. We have found no less than 23 feet of water, and we are anchored a cannon's shot off the island in 26 feet of water."
" February 10th, 1699 Iberville anchoring at Ship Island,
French-Canadian, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, anchored his small fleet of five ships off Ship Island in February 1699. Serving King Louis XIV of France, d’Iberville and his men left the fleet safely at anchor in the island’s deep-water harbor, rowing ashore in small boats. Their orders included establishing the colony of Louisiana, exploring the Gulf of Mexico’s northern coast and finding the mouth of the Mississippi River.
For decades earlier, explorers had paddled the Mississippi River’s length from Canada southward, but no European knew the river’s exact entry point into the sea. Discovery of its mouth by d’Iberville cemented French claims to an area approximately one third of today’s United States of America. Control of the Mississippi River Valley further served French interests by hemming in England’s colonies on the Atlantic coast and blocking Spanish expansion northward from Mexico and Central America.
Creating alliances with local tribes, d’Iberville established Louisiana and its first capital on today’s Mississippi coast. For the next sixty years, the deep-water anchorage and French warehouse at Ship Island supported Biloxi, Mobile, New Biloxi and then New Orleans as each community on the coast served in turn as the capital of Louisiana.
On January 3rd, 1721, two transport ships arrived from France and anchored off Ship Island. Aboard were 300 young women bound for colonial settlements on the Yazoo River, Bay St. Louis and Pascagoula Bay. Two days later, a third ship dropped anchor with 81 more girls and young women, accompanied by Catholic nuns including Sisters Gertrude, St. Louis and Marie. Records suggest ages varied from as young as fifteen years of age to women in their early twenties.
"Filles a la cassette" was the name given to these young ladies sent to establish families in early 18th century Louisiana. Carrying personal belongings in a small casket or trunk, they set sail from France seeking husbands among colonists and soldiers living in the relatively new colony.
Collected first from jails, but afterwards from convents and orphanages, the women were part of France’s efforts to turn its distant outpost of Louisiana into a flourishing, well-populated colony. Each bride was provided with a wedding outfit and was enjoined not to marry without consent from the watchful nuns.
Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochran
In December 1814, Admiral Sir Alexander Cochran anchored between Ship Island and Cat Island with a fleet of fifty British warships and 7,500 soldiers. After burning Washington, D.C. and unsuccessfully attacking Fort McHenry near Baltimore, Cochran’s next move was to turn south towards the Gulf of Mexico and attempt an invasion of New Orleans, Louisiana. This would lead to the final major battle between Great Britain and the United States during the War of 1812.
Controlling New Orleans would mean, in effect, taking the Mississippi River away from the United States. But first, Admiral Cochran would have to gain control of the Mississippi Sound.
With depths too shallow for large warships, the admiral dispatched an armada of 45 small boats and barges manned by 1,200 British sailors and marines. These forces engaged American gunboats and schooners at Bay St. Louis and in the Rigolets, the marshy passage leading into Lake Bourne and the approaches to New Orleans.
Following two horrific battles afloat, a small fleet of American gunboats was overpowered on December 14th, 1814. Including both sides, 94 combatants were dead or wounded following exchanges of shellfire, grapeshot and hand-to-hand combat.
The way was then clear to move thousands of invasion troops forward from Ship Island to the decisive battle against American forces led by future president, General Andrew Jackson. Defeated on January 8th, 1815, the last major invasion force to attack one of the contiguous 48 states within the United States withdrew from the northern Gulf Coast.
General Sir Edward Pakenham
Sir Edward Pakenham, brother-in-law to Britain’s great hero of the Napoleonic Wars, the Duke of Wellington, led British forces in the pivotal land attack against American troops defending the city of New Orleans. The warship transporting General Pakenham from Europe dropped anchor off Ship Island on December 24th, 1814, ten days after the earlier naval battles that gave the British control of the Mississippi Sound.
On Christmas Day 1814, Pakenham made the 60-mile crossing by small boat to Bayou Bienvenue. Stepping ashore, he assumed command of his troops and began directing forces into position for the capture of New Orleans.
On January 8th, 1815, Pakenham fell mortally wounded while attempting to rally his troops against rifle and cannon fire from American defenses alongside the Mississippi River. Weeks later, the British fleet and army departed Ship Island with Pakenham’s remains on board.
On Christmas Day 1853, Edward Havens became the first keeper of the Ship Island lighthouse station at a salary of $500.00 per year. Completed in March of the same year, the 45-foot brick tower stood not far from the island’s west tip, marking the entrance to Ship Island’s harbor and deep-water anchorage. Havens would serve as keeper until his death eighteen months later.
Mrs. Mary Havens
Mary Havens became Ship Island’s lighthouse keeper in June 1855, appointed following her husband’s accidental death. Mrs. Havens served in that capacity until her own death sixteen months later.
Lt. Frederick Prime
The attacks by British forces against Washington, Baltimore and New Orleans in 1814-15 identified the need for improved defenses to protect the United States from attack by sea. The U.S. Congress approved an ambitious plan to construct state-of-the-art masonry fortifications at strategic locations along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
On February 22nd, 1859, First Lieutenant Frederick E. Prime was appointed superintending engineer for the fort planned for Ship Island. Prime succeeded Second Lieutenant Newton F. Alexander, who had performed initial planning but died of yellow fever before the beginning of construction.
Despite being first in his West Point class and having nearly a decade of experience, Prime must have found building a brick fort on a barrier island to be a series of challenges. These included securing building supplies, finding craftsmen willing to work in isolated conditions, and then somehow transporting everything to a remote construction site. Hurricanes, storms, dampness, disease and semitropical heat were almost constant irritants that would delay his construction schedule.
After Mississippi voted to secede from the Union in January 1861, construction under Prime’s leadership halted. After a third and final armed party landed to take possession of the unfinished fort, Prime considered himself relieved of responsibility, dismissed his civilian workers and departed for Washington, D.C.
Lt. Colonel Henry Watkins Allen
Commanding companies from the 4th Louisiana Infantry regiment, Lieutenant Colonel H.W. Allen occupied Ship Island’s unfinished fort in mid-1862. Fearing attack by Union naval forces, Allen set his Confederates to work mounting cannon and extending the fort’s incomplete brick walls by filling and stacking sandbags.
In a letter published in the Baton Rouge Weekly Advocate, dated July 30th, Allen wrote, "Here we intend to stay and keep ‘watch and ward’ over this ‘Isle of tranquil delight’ in spite of mosquitoes, hot suns, bilge water, live Yankees and big ships."
Ordered to evacuate in September 1862, Allen left a note on the camp bulletin board. Union sailors landing following his departure read of Allen’s desire to again meet the officers and crew of the U.S.S. Massachusetts, a Union frigate that exchanged cannon fire with Ship Island’s Confederate forces months earlier in July 1862.
Colonel Edward Jones
Colonel Edward F. Jones commanded the Sixth Massachusetts and landed with his regiment on Ship Island in December 1861. Under the overall command of General Benjamin Butler, the Sixth Massachusetts was one of the first units to arrive on Ship Island in preparation for the attack planned against New Orleans.
Less than a year before his arrival, Jones had been a civilian. Like most soldiers in the Civil War, Jones was not a professional soldier. He was a militiaman or citizen soldier called into service in 1861.
On Ship Island, Jones occupied his time with organizing his regiment’s camp, drills in infantry movements, and defenses against attack. The following are a few excerpts from his diary, written in pencil, while on Ship Island. Upon arrival, Jones writes of his new surroundings:
Friday December 6th --Dreary place on shore—all sand—one House and Light House except a few sheds constitutes all buildings--
Saturday December 7th --Two Rebel Gunboats came out from direction of New Orleans—The New London and DeSota went out to engage them and they Retreated—
Saturday December 14th --Spent the day in building a Log Stable at night the Kingfisher arrived bad news—all our horses killed in storm—69 horses died on the passage by improperly stowage Poor old Billy peace to his ashes
Tuesday January 7, 1862 --Made arrangement in AM for the Funeral of Private Goodreau of Co A who died last night – went with Gen Phelps and selected a spot for a Grave & propose to arrange it a little for a Regimental burial ground—
Saturday January 11, 1862 --There is room to encamp about 4000 men on the Easterly Point of the Island but they would be much troubled by musquitos and would have no place for Drill—
Friday January 17, 1862 Fog – all Fog -- …Fog has been so dense all day that we could not see offshore -- …I feel all out of sorts, blue – sad and do not take my usual interest in matters going on In fact there is nothing going on–
Jones continues to write through the months of February and March 1862. Topics include fog, rain, freezing weather, boredom, burials and military drill. He writes of leading brief, uneventful forays onto the Confederate mainland, but continues usually with a theme of general boredom. On April 12th, he writes of lightning from a "fearful" storm striking eleven men and killing three.
In time, he writes of resigning his command, but decides against such an action so close to enemy lines. Jones finally leaves Ship Island in mid-April 1862 for New Orleans. Colonel Edward F. Jones was very successful after the war and was twice elected as Lieutenant Governor of New York.
General Benjamin Butler
Controversial political figure from Massachusetts and commanding officer of Union forces on Ship Island in 1862. Following the U.S. Navy’s invasion fleet, Butler and 7,000 troops sailed up the Mississippi River to occupy New Orleans in August of 1862.
Once established in the occupied city, Butler moved quickly to arrest local citizens openly sympathetic to the Confederacy, including the hanging of an individual for tearing down the American flag. His former headquarters at Ship Island became the site of a military stockade housing suspected spies, collaborators, and sympathizers.
Fearful of Confederate counterattack against New Orleans, Butler organized several thousand free men-of-color and former slaves into militia regiments under his command. This would be one of the initial efforts leading to 180,000 African-Americans serving in Union Armies during various campaigns of the Civil War.
One of Butler’s early regiments of African-American soldiers from New Orleans, the Second Regiment Louisiana Native Guards, garrisoned Ship Island beginning in January of 1863.
Mrs. Eugenia Phillips
Eugenia Phillips lived in New Orleans at the time of its surrender to Union forces. Accused of mocking a Union officer’s funeral procession and previously suspected of "traitorous acts" in pre-war Washington, Mrs. Phillips was arrested on General Butler’s order and sentenced to confinement on Ship Island--until further orders. On June 30th, 1862, Phillips departed the city accompanied by one female servant.
On arrival at Ship Island, Phillips and her maid were kept for several days in what was described as a railroad car. General Dow, then the island’s commanding officer, posted sentries with instructions that no one would speak to Phillips during her stay. Conditions improved when transferred to new quarters, but Mrs. Phillips still wrote bitterly of the sand, heat, rain, food and general conditions of living on a barrier island.
Phillips’ husband, a former U.S. Congressman from Alabama, interceded in New Orleans with General Butler on his wife’s behalf. On September 11th, Eugenia Phillips reluctantly took an oath of honor not to give aid, comfort or information to the enemies of the United States and was allowed to depart Ship Island.
Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, U.S.N.
During the Civil War, David Glasgow Farragut commanded Union naval forces across the western Gulf of Mexico, from Pensacola, Florida to the Rio Grande River in Texas. His orders included the blockading and possible capture of major Confederate ports on the northern Gulf coast. Farragut’s flagship, the Hartford, dropped anchor at Ship Island, Mississippi on February 20th, 1862.
Ship Island served as a supply and repair facility for the fleet under Farragut’s command. Tons of coal, required for steam powered ships, were kept stockpiled on the island’s shore. Close by the harbor, mechanics in shops on the beach repaired the engines powering these same vessels. Ship Island’s harbor and its location, roughly one hundred miles from New Orleans, served also as the assembly area when Farragut ordered his ships to capture New Orleans and eventually gain control of the Mississippi River.
In April 1862, Farragut sailed his war-fleet past Forts Jackson and St. Phillips, Confederate held masonry fortifications on the Mississippi River. Union troops on Ship Island, waiting to follow upriver, wrote of hearing low thunder over the water towards the western horizon. This was the cannon fire being exchanged one hundred miles away as Federal warships steamed past Confederate forts towards the city.
New Orleans surrendered on April 24th and Farragut was promoted to the rank of rear admiral. An ironic note is that Farragut, a Tennessean by birth, actually lived in New Orleans as a child. A. T. Mahan, naval officer and historian, writes in his 1892 biography of Farragut that the admiral’s father lived in Pascagoula, Mississippi until his death in 1817.
Ship Island figured again in Farragut’s plans in late summer 1864. His fleet sailed in early August against fortifications protecting Mobile, Alabama. During the Battle of Mobile Bay, the Union fleet encountered massive Fort Morgan, underwater mines known as torpedoes and a small fleet of Confederate warships. During the battle’s confusing, early moments, Farragut exalted his ships forward through a deadly minefield with the famous cry reported in period accounts as "Damn the torpedoes!"
Following his victory at the Battle of Mobile Bay, Farragut was appointed to the newly created rank of vice-admiral. Prisoners from Confederate forts and warships surrendered during the battle were sent to Ship Island for parole, exchange or eventual transfer to prisons in the north.
Colonel Nathan W. Daniels
In late 1862, General Benjamin Butler began organizing militia units of local African-Americans to help defend New Orleans from Confederate attack. He appointed Colonel Nathan W. Daniels, a fervent abolitionist, as commanding officer of the Second Regiment Louisiana Native Guards, beginning one of the early experiments of using African-Americans as soldiers and officers in the Union army.
Originally from New York and Ohio, Daniels had lived in Louisiana before the Civil War and returned to New Orleans following duty with the Army of the Ohio. Daniels first led his regiment primarily in performing engineering work around the New Orleans area.
Before the Native Guards had the opportunity to be tested in combat, General Nathaniel P. Banks replaced Benjamin Butler as Union commander in New Orleans. Less than enthusiastic with the idea of African-American troops and officers, Banks ordered Daniels and the Second Regiment to garrison remote Ship Island in January 1863.
Daniels writes of monotonous duty on Ship Island. Desiring combat, his troops instead dug artillery emplacements in the sand and assisted in constructing the unfinished brick fort. Still, he expressed great pride in his men and was quite pleased with their actions during one moment in combat together, a raid against East Pascagoula, Mississippi on April 9th, 1863.
In May 1863, Nathan Daniels was arrested on charges made by an army engineering officer supervising the building of Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island’s west tip. Ordered to defend against possible attack, the colonel appropriated lumber intended for the fort’s construction. Daniels believed building emplacements for heavy artillery was a prudent military necessity, but after five months of waiting for trial in New Orleans, the Second Regiment’s commanding officer resigned his commission to avoid court-martial and further delay.
Major Francis E. Dumas
From January to July 1863, Major Francis Ernest Dumas served on Ship Island in the Second Regiment of Louisiana Native Guards. Described as refined and well-educated, Dumas was described as a biracial, prosperous, slave-owning planter in the New Orleans area. He is reported to have spoken three languages besides French and English.
Following the surrender of New Orleans to Union forces, Dumas enlisted one hundred of his slaves into a company of Native Guards. Promoted from captain to major by General Benjamin Butler, Dumas became one of the two highest ranking nonwhite commissioned officers in the war and the only one to see combat.
Serving under Colonel Nathan Daniels, Dumas participated in the 2nd Regiment’s raid against East Pascagoula, Mississippi on April 9th, 1863. Fighting alongside Companies B & G of the Native Guards, Colonel Daniels commended Dumas for his actions during the day’s fight against Confederate cavalry and infantry.
Following Daniel’s removal from command, Dumas resigned his commission and returned to civilian life in Louisiana as a planter, becoming quite wealthy. Like other Second Regiment officers, he also became quite active in politics. During the period of Reconstruction, Dumas came within two votes of being nominated for governor in 1868. When offered the number two spot by the white Radical Republican nominee, Dumas declined.
Second Assistant Engineer John C. O’Connell, C.S.N.
C. Carter Smith, Jr. first published the diary of John C. O’Connell in 1964. O’Connell helped bring the formidable, but slow steam-powered ram, C.S.S. Tennessee, into battle against Union warships at the Battle of Mobile Bay. Following intense cannon fire from opposing vessels, O’Connell’s Tennessee was forced to surrender upon receiving massive damage, including loss of steering capability.
First imprisoned aboard Union warships, O’Connell traveled to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Pensacola, then to a prison barracks in New Orleans. Finally on November 6, 1864 he was sent to the prison camp on Ship Island. He would occupy a tent near the beach until his exchange six months later.
Officers were kept separate from the enlisted men. He writes of monotony, boring food, foggy mornings and cold winter days. He hated those times when it was his turn to help cook for the men in his particular group.
Every four days, O’Connell had the opportunity to wander the island for a distance of two miles and back, though he said he seldom did. His treatment appeared to be tolerable and notes being treated with respect by his captors, but also mentions that the enlisted men are knocked down in "…a shameful manner."
Food packages from New Orleans livened up his existence, but O’Connell writes of envy as he watched other Confederate prisoners leave the island for permanent prisons elsewhere or a possible return home. Finally on March 2, 1865 the naval engineer gets word that an exchange of prisoners has been arranged between sides. John C. O’Connell boards a ship and under a flag of truce sails back to Mobile and away from Ship Island.
Private Isaac Jackson, 83d Ohio Infantry
In late December 1864, the 83d Ohio Infantry was transferred from Natchez, Mississippi to Pensacola, Florida by way of New Orleans. Observing Ship Island’s military stockade during a brief stopover, Private Isaac Jackson, Company D, wrote the following remarks as his ship picked up freight and passengers:
"This is the most desolate place I ever saw. Its nothing but a heap of sand surrounded by water, no vegetation on whatever that I could see. I do not wonder at the "Government" for choosing this place for the punishment for the "evil workers." I should think it would be punishment enough to confine a man there without "Hard Labor." That's generally the sentence of a soldier sent there for punishment."
Lighthouse Keeper Dan McColl
Following the Civil War, Ship Island’s harbor provided safe anchorage for cargo carrying ships sailing from Europe, the Caribbean and South America to the Mississippi coast. Maintaining the island’s lighthouse became a primary focus of activities for the island’s small population.
Beginning in 1877, Dan McColl served as the keeper of Ship Island’s lighthouse for nearly 25 years. Like other lighthouse keepers, his function was to …keep the lights burning. To not properly tend the burning oil lanterns and magnificent, complex glass lenses invited maritime disaster and death.
McColl’s efforts to protect sailors and ships from shoals and shallow water were rather remarkable, considering he had only one leg. The Civil War veteran had found employment in the latter 1860’s with the Central Illinois Railroad in New Orleans. In 1869, he lost his right leg at the hip in a train accident.
Despite loss of a limb, McColl received his appointment as assistant lighthouse keeper in 1875, followed by his promotion to Ship Island’s keeper two years later. To tend the brick lighthouse, McColl had to climb up a circular stairway some 45 feet in height.
Once atop the brick tower, he then climbed an iron ladder from the top of the stairs through a hole, measuring 18 inches by 24 inches, in the lantern room floor. Once inside the lantern room, McColl tended to fueling, cleaning and preparing the lanterns for the night’s work. At least one more trip was necessary in the morning to secure equipment during the daylight hours.
By the 1880’s, the old 1853 brick tower suffered from cracks and undermining from the sea. A visiting engineer warned the tower was "liable to fall at any time." McColl remarked during wild gales that the tower rocked "quite perceptibly."
In 1886, a new wooden tower standing about 76 feet above mean low tide was constructed replacing the old brick tower. McColl continued to tend his light for several more years until June 1899. After more than two decades, McColl and his wife left Ship Island to take up other duties. It was thought a new position at the Cat Island lighthouse would be considered less arduous for the veteran lighthouse keeper.
Lighthouse Keeper C.H. "Pop" Stone
For almost twenty years, Claude "Pop" Stone tended the wooden Ship Island lighthouse. From the early 1930’s to the late 1940’s, Stone kept the lights lit, guiding ships past shallow waters and low-lying islands to safety in the Ship Island’s harbor.
Stone joined the United States Lighthouse Service in 1927 and took his first job as assistant at the Chandeleur Lighthouse, located some 20 miles south of Biloxi and Gulfport. After three months and ten days, the young keeper gained permission to take a 23-foot boat with its two-cycle engine back home. It was one of Stone’s first experiences on the open water.
As his boat putted away leaving the remote chain of islands behind, he had an idea that Gulfport was somewhere to the northwest. Fortunately, Stone survived when a hard squall struck his boat five miles south of Ship Island.
In 1931, Stone was assigned to work at the Ship Island Lighthouse. The loneliness of a small barrier island would perhaps frighten some people, but not C.H. Stone. He, his wife and family found everyday to be an adventure as they maintained the light tower, the quarters, pier and workboats. Several of the Stone children practically grew up on the island, boarding a waiting boat when school let out for summer and not returning until the fall.
While most of his career was at Ship Island, Stone also worked lighthouses, boats and duty stations across the northern Gulf Coast. In 1939, the Lighthouse Service was taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard. Given a choice, Stone enlisted as a Boatswain Mate First Class and eventually reached the rank of Chief Boatswain Mate.
During World War II, he served two years in the Pacific Ocean working aboard military supply vessels. Offered the opportunity to work elsewhere at the war’s end, he chose returning to the Gulf Coast and Ship Island.
Modern radar and navigational aids have lessened the needs for lighthouses. In 1947, the Coast Guard closed down Ship Island Lighthouse as a manned facility, replacing it with automated lights and beacons. "Pop" Stone remained in the Coast Guard until his own retirement in 1955 and died in Gulfport, Mississippi in 1997 at 91 years of age.
Did You Know?
The 2nd Regiment of Louisiana Native Guards trained on Ship Island and became the first black unit on April 9, 1863 on the Gulf Frontier. They met Confederate forces in battle during a raid on Pascagoula, MS.